Why I Don’t Pray More

I’d have to face the ache of my longings. Go deep into the back room, unearth the box to surrender and and open it to see my heart bleeding. I know in my head my God is more than able to comfort and to provide as He pleases. But I’m like my boy has been – terrified over the sight and taste of his own blood, praying God remove the tooth without pain. Tennyson would rather eat and go about his day pretending he’s fine, that it doesn’t hurt. He is afraid of being afraid.

The Question of Human Suffering

MoonlightMore times than I can name, the wayfaring has been a desperate crawl. This is no metaphor, not when there were days I could not drag my broken body downstairs for the mail.

Jan 2003, Meningitis. The virus had taken itself up in my spine and lining of the brain. Journal:

At every turn of the neck, the world exploded inside my head. I could do nothing but weep driving home. Never had I known such blinding pain. I simply did not want to live like this anymore.

That night, I plumbed depths of rock bottom I didn’t know were there. The pain was so great nothing mattered anymore. Not finding a job, making ends meet. I just wanted to drop everything and die.

An email from a cancer survivor:
Been processing resentment in my life. God is showing me how I’ve been building that up in my life and it affects my immune system making me susceptible to disease.

February 2003
There have been mornings I would wake and realize with wonder my eyes had opened. That I was given another day. The awe came with…disappointment.

Midmonth – exactly ten years before I would start blogging – I opened the mailbox to find an unexpected check for $500 on my 30th birthday. The bills would be paid that month.

There is no word for what God has done tonight other than that He “disarmed” me. For the first time, I was enabled to pray blessings upon those who have hurt me or whose blessings I have begrudged.

How slow I have been to learn the weightiest, simplest truths these 13 years in Christ: we are meant to grow, not on wings of ease but in suffering, and this thing called faith is meant to be lived out with the support of others. The ABCs…..perhaps they are also the XYZ. I marvel that I have marveled at suffering.

March 2003, God wasn’t done breaking me. So this time, He sent me $1000. Through an anonymous donor.

While I have harbored suspicious reserve of my God and His heart for me in these maddening trials, the one I should remain suspicious of is myself and my resolve to change. Even my most genuine, sweetest moments of repentance often are but moments; I know my heart. I know I am as helpless to sanctify myself as I am to justify myself.

Something breaks. In order to restore it, you have to know the intent of its maker in the original design. What is the object of our living? The two-car garage white-picket watchdog two cute kids?

Across the spectrum of distinct faiths, we find that those who’ve struck the purest of gold in joy and freedom are those who renounced themselves most simply and profoundly. Heaven’s for later.

We come to the most famous historical narrative on suffering. Job had lost everything we define our life by and legitimately treasure: children, home, possessions, wealth, livelihood, health. Oh, Job wept. He literally lay in the dust. Dr. Timothy Keller offers a deeply thoughtful treatment on the question of human suffering. He says the Christian perspective is entirely realistic. We don’t minimize the impact of tragedy and loss. When it sucks (my paraphrase), we acknowledge it does. We don’t try to zone out of it. We weep, enter its fullness – I would add, like Jesus. He didn’t meditate himself out of the agony on the Cross. He refused the wine offered him in his thirst, wouldn’t dull himself away. It was in His surrender to the torment that He redeemed both Himself and His bride, the Church. In the book of Job, our Maker does not apologize. Contrary to what many imagine in times that strain, God does not lament here either – at least, not in flummoxed helplessness. He even seems to go off topic when He finally presents Himself to answer Job. God’s own query points to the limits on our knowledge and strength.

The book of Job, Chapter 38, as I examined those early months in 2003:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off…Surely you know!
Who stretched…
Who shut up the sea……
Have you ever given orders….
Have you journeyed…

Have you seen…
Have you comprehended the vast…
Tell me, if you know all this.
Can you…
Do you know
Surely you know….
Can you bind….
Can you loose…..

Can you bring forth….lead out…
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you set up……
Can you raise…
Do you send…..

Can you hold him…
Can your voice…..?”

Chapter 42, Job’s reply:
“I know that YOU can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted…
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”

Why do we suffer? I, for one, realized I ate nonfoods my whole life and then petitioned friends for prayer when Natural Law kicked in. Whether in the way we mistreat ourselves or others, we bring on more of our troubles than we care to admit. Of course affliction visits lives that contributed nothing to it. And when fists shake at God, the Church offers a range of well-meaning answers that justify Him or us. But theology does not satisfy the cries of the heart. Job 42. Where were we when He rolled out the universe and furnished it in spectacle? Indeed we are but vapor. Theologian J.I. Packer has said we must acknowledge the mystery of God. I don’t see that He would remain God were we able to unlock the secrets of His glory. In my book, a God who hangs his head in attrition or fits inside my fabrications and understanding is not worthy of my worship.

It’s Always My Fault

Every time I drive by the church where it happened, I still look away. I drown the memory in a parade of new thoughts and have managed to take Hidden Valley with the casualness I run through any other road. That evening six years ago, I was leaving the church with my toddler in my arms and didn’t realize I was about to step off a curb as we neared the parking lot. I thought I was on level ground. When the pavement gave way under my foot, we didn’t just fall. We crashed straight like a tree, Tennyson’s forehead bearing the full weight of my body in the sickening clap with concrete. I can hear him scream.

I am finding this the hardest thing I have written on this blog. The tears aside, my heart pounds with fresh pain and I am clammy with sweat, replaying the tape. My boy was okay (by medical standards, though I knew cells and neurons had their work cut out for them). And as I walked through a doorway the next day wearing him on my back, I didn’t know he was sticking his head out to the side. BAM went his head against the wall along the threshold. Yes, on the same spot.

I was beside myself when I called my husband. Rather than blame me for my incompetence and idiocy, the amazing man expressed compassion. He had only to imagine what I was going through to feel terrible for me. I will never forgive myself the injuries my son suffered that week. And I will shut off the comments if you try to encourage me out of it. Finger on the trigger.

I peer at myself as I would a lab specimen. I am not one of those people who goes around saying sorry. I don’t wring my hands, gush to please and – as much as I pity them – don’t cry for cats that are run over. I am also well versed in the theology of forgiveness and grace, my surety and the cornerstone of my faith. But when I dissect the narratives in my head, I discover so many threads of quiet self-condemnation it’s as though I’m built out of it. The bruises of masochistic abuse remain well hidden. They are more like innocent white noise of the subtext that plays out in my day.

Even now it takes effort to switch off the autopilot on the self-blame when Tennyson comes down with a cold. Why didn’t I dress him more warmly yesterday? I shouldn’t have given him dairy. My mind reels back through the previous few days to puzzle where I’d gone wrong, what I ought to have done to keep him well. I live with the sense of failure for not keeping my home tidier. Tennyson’s math workbook disappeared recently. But I just organized! I marveled. For days I scoured the car, the learning room, the laundry room, family room, office, and then looped back wondering how I could be so inept at the housekeeping so as to lose lesson books. I asked the little man again if he’d seen it. Then when I presented him with the next book in the series I’d resigned to fast-forwarding him to, my sweet child exclaimed, “Oh, I know where it is!” slipping the magic find out of a crevice behind a poster.

Disbelief. He had hidden it so he wouldn’t have to do his math. My son, who’s made no habit of lying.

I swallow guilt every morning I start him with the book while (and so that) I can get back to readers. I should sit with him more. My conscience reminds me that I have yet to teach him piano and the Korean alphabet. What will I do with myself when I come through? Ah, fortunately for me the Holistic Fault Factory runs a tireless operation. Can’t disappoint Korean management. I’ve spoken of the ongoing struggle it is for me as an artist, caught between my writing and the life outside it. A friend shared a bit of wisdom she picked up in regard to time that I have to digest: receive the gift of your limitations.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? Even when freed up to blog, I’ve felt bad for shooting out more than one post in a day, though a new rhythm is something I’ve had to deal with in the fall school year; I’ve hated to bother you. I refrained from writing about myself in any depth for a full year, not wanting to waste your time with stories of my past. I will sometimes disable the likes, feeling bad for getting “too many”. Simply unable to keep up, I’ve grudgingly learned to fall behind on all the blogs to visit back. I’m tapping into followers and visitors from January – not that anyone’s waiting. So trying to make heads and tails out of this strange creature in the mirror, I’ve a suspicion guilt is something we experience in and between relationships. I feel its weight as wife and mother, and even as blogger.

I grapple with it in connection with my body, eating guilt when I don’t do enough vegetables. As a teenager, I didn’t salt my food. I felt guilty for the flavor. Then there’s the chagrin when I ease up on the work-outs in order to write. And the resentment, those other days, in not being able to open the windows of my mind, let my words out, is actually the sorrow of being untrue to myself. I’m crazy. Annoyed every time my mother cries about all the ways she (says that she) wronged me in my younger years, I think people derive a certain pleasure in the self-incrimination. It is possible – God makes it possible – for us to live free from our failings and remorse. Why are we afraid to let these go? Why do we resist grace?

Single at Sixty

Most of the time, my relationship with my God and His grace are sufficient for me. I know I am loved eternally by Him. He hears my prayers and has opened my ears to hear His voice. Yet because I am human, there are times I feel like an outsider because I am a single woman in a culture that values couples and family. I suppose I have felt like an outsider my whole life.

Upon completing fourth grade, I was advanced two years. The unwanted achievement placed me two years younger than my classmates through the remainder of elementary, junior high and high school. I graduated high school at sixteen. I was also short (4’7”) and timid, which made the experience difficult at best, horrific at worst. Social awkwardness, teasing, bullying, puberty, an abusive father, and coming of age in the 1960s all contributed to my never knowing who I was or was meant to be. They placed me teetering precariously on the edge of friendships, social and emotional maturity, political awareness and sometimes, sanity.

The discovery of the vast hole in my heart at some point in my 30s led to over a decade of exploring ways to fill that hole in the attempt not to feel like an outsider. I experimented with Eastern religions, self-help seminars, drugs, clothes, men (lots of men) and only found temporary relief. The feeling that I belonged somewhere, to somebody, faded as soon as the fog on the mirror cleared.

Years later, when I found the One Man who filled me – who loves me unconditionally, whose vocabulary doesn’t include the words abandon or unworthy or unforgivable – the mirror cleared for good. Most of the time, I feel His arms around me, and I know I am an adopted daughter, friend, bride.

Then there are those other times.

My social circle is centered within my church. I’m part of a weekly women’s Bible study group. Eight of us have been meeting together for nearly three years. These women are married with children. I love that we are an intergenerational group. We are close – we pray for each other. We get together outside of study. As the conversation naturally turns toward marriage or motherhood, I feel on the periphery.

Church functions are organized around families, so I often retreat. When I attend Sunday service, I sit alone, aching for those I know to ask me to sit with them. I suppose if I were bolder or more outgoing, I might ask if I could join them, but Sundays seem sacrosanct. It is the Sabbath; it is time for families.

There is a singles group that caters to those 20-50. The object is to encourage and help them to form families. I am sixty-three. While I occasionally miss the nighttime snuggling of a marital companion, for the most part I enjoy the solitude of my own space. I am comfortable in my own skin and content with my own company.

So I pray to remember that I am not of this world, I am of it only for a time. Someday, I will not be an outsider. I will be face to face with my Redeemer. His very own. An insider for eternity.

Susan Irene Fox at www.susanirenefox.com

Greatness, Finale: The Triumph of Forgiveness

Like a diamond, the attribute of greatness has so many faces its definition remains elusive. Thus far I have traced greatness along the lines of tenacity. I could go on to look at heroes who cope with severe disabilities or who have scaled Everest and run ultras that are four times the distance of a marathon. But I bring this series home with what I consider the most herculean of feats, to reach into the depths of one’s spirit in the costly act of forgiveness.

When someone injures us; mind, body, or spirit, it incites demand for justice. Parent, friend, or stranger has inflicted pain and must requite the wrong with contrition, if not suffering. The question that remains is what happens to the debt that goes unremitted. Someone must pay that debt and where the perpetrator has no plans to, the victim always absorbs the cost in one of two ways: with anger or with grace that clears the debt from the offender’s account. The acrimony that weighs on the unforgiving heart becomes an emotional cancer that often manifests itself physically. The liver literally stores the poison of grief and resentment. Understandably, freeing others of their debt depollutes our spirit and body. But life isn’t a treatise. You can understand the harm nursing grievance means to your emotional and physical well-being but if you’ve been abused, abandoned, attacked, or lost a loved one to a senseless transgression, you’re going to want blood.

Why is forgiveness so hard? To pay evil with grace is hardly possible. I wish it were as doable, as conquerable, as daily hours of exercise. Indignation is the compelling logic of right and wrong, and speaks to our sense of entitlement. The anger also answers the feeling of helplessness with the delusion of strength.

Corrie Ten Boon with her sister and father endured unspeakable atrocities in a concentration camp for having hid Jews in occupied Holland. Corrie, the only one in her family to survive, went on to preach God’s forgiveness all over the world. Here is a part of her story:

“And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones..the huge room with its harsh overhead lights…the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand.

‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there. But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’ And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

Since the end of the war I’d had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.”

I can just hear the cynicism about convicts alleging conversion. That is besides the point at the moment: it is excruciatingly difficult even for Christians. We assent to, oh embrace, the God who sacrificed the Innocent to acquit a guilty race. Jesus made amends through payment of punishment. Atonement. He took every stain of my being and the worst I will ever think or do, and removed them from me as far as East is from West in an act entirely unjust to God Himself. In this post, I offer a glimpse of a long, dark season in which I was incapacitated. I will appreciate your reading The Question of Human Suffering before you debate God with me, and do it under that post while not expecting me to solve age-old mysteries. I share how it was Relentless Goodness that stripped me of all proud claims. But the insistence on self returns. It is the beauty of undeserved kindness, not the threat of retribution, that lifts us onto the higher ground of humility and compassion. Deep in conversation with the theologian Ravi Zacharias on a train, a woman asked him what Christianity offers that other faiths don’t. “Forgiveness,” he answered, meeting contemplation.

Full, deep forgiveness is an achievement of consummate greatness, a triumph worthier than Olympic gold because we are not actualizing or fulfilling the self but denying it. The human heart is the bloodiest, fiercest of battlegrounds; the place of pardon where we most profoundly attain the nobility of our humanity. For, I would add, it images divine glory. To answer insensitivity, violence, or hate with love calls for a power greater than our flesh can marshal.

There are a lot of bloggers writing their pain away. Every one of us has had someone to forgive. There are many bitter Christians, and on my worst days you can easily count me among them. But the Cross offers the why and the how we can move toward grace, makes the transformation possible. For a widened perspective of how people try to heal from unjust wounds, I would like to hear especially from those who do not share my worldview. Where do you get the power to release him, her who did that to you? Do you feel you can even try? Under the smile are you heavy with dirt spit by tires that went screeching into the sunset? Or have you gotten up, refused to call yourself roadkill? Is coping enough for you? Are you walking, or running? Laden with burdens buried in pockets or are you free of them? If so, how?